Dana Stevens on Writing a “Zigzag Biography” of Buster Keaton ‹ Literary Hub


Dana Stevens stops by the Damn Library to talk about her new book, Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the dawn of cinema and the invention of the 20th century, and it allows for plenty of topic jumping, from the birth of movie reviews to Buster Keaton’s model trains to the dynamic movie description trick. Plus, she brings Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Worrya fascinating posthumous tome from a prolific contemporary of Keaton that Dana Stevens is also obsessed with.

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What did you buy ?

Christopher: Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Dana: A Monica Vitti poster of a always from The Adventure

Also mentioned:

Brown Derby Restaurant by Sally Wright Cobb • River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit • west of sunset by Stuart O’Nan • The trial by Franz Kafka • Pessoa: a biography by Richard Zenith • The Book of Worry by Fernando Pessoa


Dana: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, read by Juliet Stevenson, MerlinCornell Bird Identification Program

Christopher: How far do we go in the dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, read by Julia Whelan, Brian Nishii, Keisuke Hoashi, MacLeod Andrews, Jeanne Sakata, Greg Watanabe, Kurt Kanazawa, Matthew Bridges, Kotaro Watanabe, Brianna Ishibashi, Joe Knezevich, Micky Shiloah, Stephanie Komure and Jason Culp

From the episode:

Christopher: I was so drawn to this other branch that you followed at different times in the book from the role of the critic. Because of course, as cinema went up, film critics showed the work. And as a reviewer, I felt like you had to have an interesting insight or point of view watching this fledgling genre being invented.

Dana: Yeah, those were two of the chapters that were the most fun to research. They are two consecutive chapters that deal in one way or another with film criticism. One is kind of about how the star system and film criticism have grown together. Because there is this crazy period in the history of cinema, I think not many people realize this, but until around 1910 or 1911, actors in films were not identified on screen by generics. So you didn’t know who was in a movie. So you could decide, oh, I have a crush on that blonde girl from Biographybut you don’t know it’s Mary Pickford because her name isn’t on screen, and the producers would deliberately try to conceal the identities of the actors so that the actors don’t ask for more money and that does not turn into the medium of an actor, more or less.

But what started to happen in the 1910s was that it became clear that this was not a sustainable system. People were going to find out the identity of those movie stars they were obsessed with. And part of how that happened was through the early movie magazines – and I write about that a bit – that had these features called the Answer Man column or something like that, at least in a magazine, it was called that. You were writing and saying, “Who’s the blond girl in the Biography movies?” And then you would start your Mary Pickford fandom that way. So that was a really fascinating phenomenon to trace, growing again with Keaton. something we forgot to say at the beginning. But 1895, the year of his birth, is also the year when the Lumière brothers first screened motion pictures. And this is an observation that is made in every biography of Keaton. I mean, it’s probably on Wikipedia. Everyone makes this note about him and sort of goes, ah, isn’t that kind of a cool irony or something So that also means he grew up alongside movies and reviews of movie critics and so on.

The other chapter on the review is about Robert Sherwood, who is a fascinating figure who really deserved some sort of mini bio capsule, which this chapter is trying to be. He was critical of The life for many years, for most of the 1920s, and also editor of The life at one point, and went on to have a fascinating life in many other ways that you can read. But his life also intersected with Keaton’s in all these fascinating ways. He loved her as a critic and always encouraged and defended her work.

Yet he hated The general, the film we now consider Keaton’s masterpiece. He tried to write a movie for Keaton once and it didn’t really work out. Anyway, I mean, as soon as I started reading about Robert Sherwood, I realized he needed a chapter of his own. So that comes back to your question about why all these digressions? The answer is basically, that’s where my curiosity went. And I’m really glad it’s working for everyone because I realize that’s a very strange structure for a book.

Christopher: It is, but I feel like structure is the last bastion of innovation for books. How we structure and how we get ideas across, I feel like that’s the thing that people are still innovating about, when it comes to the pages of a book. And so I felt great, all the time I was reading this, I was like, this is a whole different thing. I’ve never read a non-fiction book like this before that could get into these things, and I don’t feel like I’m ever reading the same book again.

Dana: Well, thank you, because that was a big challenge when writing, obviously, and a scary thing to send it out to new people. Do you know the book River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit?

Christopher: I do not.

Dana: It’s a book that I thought of while structuring this book and that was an inspiration for, at the very least, freedom of thought, maybe I can do something different. I mean, it’s a different book, but it’s also the story of an individual, which is Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer who took those famous running horse pictures that are often called the basic genre of cinema . And he, too, this photographer, had this very long, weird, fascinating life of photographing the railroad extension across the West and being involved in a murder trial and all that crazy stuff.

And she’s a wonderful writer. And she made a kind of history of the American West, basically through the life of Eadweard Muybridge. It’s not something I thought I’d want to read, yet it’s one of my favorite books. So yes, I think there is a precedent for zigzag biographies. But it’s something you really feel, will someone follow me on this journey?

Christopher: Totally. Well, I definitely followed you to Sherwood, and that also got me wondering, as a film critic, do you feel like there are actors you think you have the same connection with with Sherwood and Keaton? Is there an actor you could look like, I would love to write a movie for them if I could.

Dana: Oh, that’s such a good question. I mean, I don’t consider myself a screenwriter or someone who can write fiction at all. It’s a full-fledged conversation. But to me, I feel like even though I’m writing, it’s a completely different brain mechanism than someone just making up a story and finding a beginning, a middle, and a end. But who is an actor with whom I vibrate in this way? I mean, I can name actors that I feel like they’re not pushed to their limits and I wish I could see them do more than they do. I think Jennifer Jason Leigh is a total genius.

And too often, especially now that she’s in her 50s, she’s been pushed into roles as a sullen ex-wife or something. I mean, she literally played her own ex-husband’s sullen ex-wife in that Noah Baumbach movie, Margot at the wedding, I think. He’s someone I’d like to see in more stuff and I’d like to be able to write for.

Who else can I think of? I mean, Oscar Isaac. I saw Oscar Isaac play Hamlet, and it was one of the best Hamlets I’ve ever seen. And since then, I kind of feel like very few people have used it as well as it could be. The Coen brothers have Inside Llewyn Davisbut i really hope it doesn’t disappear in star wars earth because he is also capable of great things.


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